Look carefully and you can see Vane Tower on all these pictures
Click on the picture to enlarge it
Vane Tower has stood at the top of Vane Hill since 1872 and its lofty position means we have some great views. During World War II the Home Guard apparently used the tower as a look out post. Imagine having a bird’s eye view of enemy aircraft heading across the bay towards Torquay and wondering if your luck was about to run out.
It must have been equally terrifying to hear the approaching aircraft for the injured servicemen who were convalescing downstairs in the main part of the house. In the 1930s and 1950s, Vane Tower was a hotel but during the war, like many other local establishments, it was requisitioned by the government and made into a nursing home.
Torquay was a military training area which made it a target and there were more than 40 German bombing raids on the town. Vane Tower had a very narrow escape on May 19th 1941 when two bombs hit a building in nearby Park Hill Road.
But the house wasn’t so lucky during a storm in February 1910 and historian Arthur Charles Ellis recorded that Vane Tower was struck by lightning “and much damage was caused…” To avoid this ever happening again, the tower now has a lightning conductor.
At the time of the lightning strike Vane Tower was one enormous house and the owners were the Blacker family who lived here from 1906-1922. Head of the family Charles Blacker had been a close friend of Oscar Wilde, who described him as “the best dressed man in London” and dedicated his book The Happy Prince & Other Tales to him. But Blacker and Wilde fell out irrevocably in 1898 over the infamous Dreyfus affair (detailed in the book Ceremonies of Bravery by J Robert Maguire).
Blacker and his wife Caroline, an American heiress, moved to Torquay and Vane Tower in 1906 with their two sons Carlos Paton Blacker (CPB) and Robin. It was here that Blacker struck up a friendship with playwright and Nobel prize winner George Bernard Shaw.
In his war memoirs Have You Forgotten Yet CPB recalls:
It was, I think, during the summer holiday of 1914 that my father met Bernard Shaw… We were bathing at Meadfoot beach when Jack Warren, from whom we hired bathing cabins and boats, pointed to a bearded man swimming towards the raft which was moored some fifty yards out. He swam vigorously using an effective side-stroke. ‘That” said Warren, ‘is a well-known man. He’s staying at the Hydro.’ I told my father who was much interested and introduced himself…The Shaws came to tea and thereafter were regular visitors.
George Bernard Shaw was of great comfort to Blacker and his wife when tragedy struck and Robin was killed in 1915, a casualty of the First World War at the age of just 18. His name can be seen on the War Memorial in Princess Gardens.
If you google Vane Tower, you will see that according to Historic England “It is said to have been built for the first American Ambassador to England.” We can find no evidence of that in the deeds. In fact, there was no American Ambassador at that time so it is unlikely. But in 1923 the building was sold to Caleb Gaskell Evans from New York so maybe this is where the story of the American Ambassador originated.
Vane Tower was originally two semi-detached villas called Pinecliff and Villa Lugano and is said to have been based on a villa built by the shores of Lake Lugano in Italy. It seems likely that it was built by Baron Haldon (Sir Lawrence Palk) – a local landowner whose family were responsible for much of the development in Torquay but who overspent and eventually ran out of money.
I have found an advertisement dating from the Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser for September 16th 1871. It details a tender for two houses for the Rev J W Patterson (the first resident of the house). The tender was awarded to local builder George Drake who quoted just £1,970 to build the two properties. The architect was Robert Stark Wilkinson (1834-1936), who was born in Exeter and studied architecture at Oxford. His notable works included the Doulton and Co pottery works in Lambeth and Exeter lunatic asylum – now Digby Hospital. Given the style of both these buildings it seems very likely that Stark was the architect of Vane Tower.